Fredi Gonzalez gathered his boys and asked them to listen. He doesn't do this often, so the Florida Marlins paused their iPods, put down their books, averted their eyes from the scouting videos and offered their attention.
All spring, Gonzalez had preached the same thing: Set the tone early.
It was his catchphrase. He said it every day. If a player didn't understand this, he wasn't listening. Gonzalez spat it like a pickup line.
So on opening day he decided to deliver his message one final time. The Marlins' manager stood in front of his players and told them how good they could be, reminded them how a hot start last season kept them in first place until May 31, and implored them: Set. The. Tone. Early.
And here they are, two weeks later, the talk of baseball and princes of the best division in the National League. Far from kings, sure – this being two weeks into the season and the Marlins carrying enough kids on their roster that one of the team's elders, Wes Helms, refers to his utility role as "babysitter/third baseman." The Marlins are 11-2, though, and not only have they set the tone early, they've blasted a clarion call to the rest of the NL East.
"Teams are going to realize the Florida Marlins are for real and they have to play us differently," Helms said. "That's what we want. We want to be known as the team to beat."
They're on their way, a group more than a year younger than the next-greenest team and teeming with the talent to compete with the rest of the division. Philadelphia may be the defending World Series winner, and the New York Mets may fall a whisker shy of being a $150 million team, and Atlanta may have overhauled its rotation in the offseason. None has matched the Marlins, operating on a $36.8 million payroll, the lowest in baseball for the third time in four years.
"Nobody in here is going to say we can beat them," Marlins starter Ricky Nolasco said. "We're not that type of team. We'll leave the talking to the Mets and Phillies and just go out and win.
"Saying something means absolutely nothing unless you do it."
Instead, the Marlins go out and win. And while it won't continue at an 85 percent clip – they re-entered the atmosphere with an 8-0 loss Monday to Pittsburgh in which they mustered two hits – Florida heeded Gonzalez's request.
"Believe me," Gonzalez said, "I'm not that good of a speechmaker for it to come up that way."
It's not that Gonzalez doesn’t believe in proper motivation. It's just that … well, he has trouble grasping how good the Marlins have been. Though six of their wins were against hapless Washington, the final three came in such dramatic fashion that the Nationals overhauled their entire roster Sunday afternoon as a result.
At this point, Gonzalez wants to preserve whatever sort of mojo floats around the Marlins. Twice over the weekend, a clumsy reporter elbowed an item from Gonzalez's desk onto the floor. The second time, a caddy filled with pens cascaded onto the ground. Almost immediately, Gonzalez said: "Come over to Pittsburgh and knock something off my desk. I'll buy the ticket."
Superstition alone doesn't account for the Marlins' maturation into a contender. The confluence of so many kids ripening together, a starting rotation of pitchers finally healthy and a bullpen far exceeding expectations has been the formula thus far.
That the Marlins boast a roster full of talent is no surprise, not with Larry Beinfest and Mike Hill in charge. Florida's two top baseball executives are Picassos of the prospect, turning the trade into a necessary art form. With owner Jeffrey Loria intent on keeping the Marlins' payroll as low as possible, Florida often must deal established and talented players when arbitration hits in their fourth season – which leaves the team in a constant state of retooling and Gonzalez with the unenviable job of bringing stability to a team of free radicals.
Florida now has enough of an established core (to call them veterans would be an insult to the truly wizened) that the old clubhouse air, one of unhinged fun, has yielded to a more laid-back vibe.
"We've grown together as a team," said outfielder Jeremy Hermida, in his fourth season. "I know you can say that about a lot of teams, but we shared a common age and a common experience, and that makes it even more special.
"Sometimes it clicks sooner, sometimes later, and some people just don't need any time. Unfortunately, I'm not one of those guys. You don't learn the work ethic in the minor leagues. I could coast on talent. When I got to the big leagues, it took a long time to figure out my routine and commit to it."
Hermida wasn't the only one. Second baseman Dan Uggla, with such prodigious hitting talent, still sees his defense lagging. Other Marlins have dogged pop-ups, only to hear from Helms, whose nickname last season, The Warden, has been softened this year to Uncle Wes.
"That's where these guys have realized it's time to win," Helms said. "They can't pull that stuff anymore. They're going to be kids. They're going to do dumb things sometimes. I do dumb things. But when your mind is in the right direction, that's what matters."
Gonzalez didn't point to the bullpen-wrecking wins against Washington or even the first game of the year as the starting point for Florida's renaissance. He flashed back to last July, when starters Josh Johnson and Anibal Sanchez returned after missing almost all of 2007 and the first three-plus months of 2008 following Tommy John surgery. With Chris Volstad joining the staff that month and Nolasco turning into a top-of-the-rotation pitcher, the Marlins featured four tremendous arms – and Andrew Miller, the top-rated talent in the 2006 draft.
The Marlins could play smart and run the bases well and try not to give up cheap runs – everything Gonzalez implored – and all 25 players understood they would go nowhere without good starting pitching, especially considering defense that often borders on butchery.
Florida starters are 6-1. Their earned-run average is 3.80, even with two poor starts from Nolasco and two more from Miller, who landed on the disabled list Monday with an oblique strain.
"I've been doing this for a long, long time, and I've never seen a pitching staff with the heads to accompany the arms," pitching coach Mark Wiley said. "I tell them: 'You guys can be really special.' "
Like scouts and GMs alike, Wiley reserves his greatest praise for Johnson, who outdueled Johan Santana with a complete-game, 2-1 victory April 12. He throws a 95-mph sinker, a wipeout slider and a keep-you-honest changeup, and he does so, Wiley said, "methodically" – a daunting word for someone with that sort of stuff.
"He's a monster, man, isn't he?"
At this juncture, all of the Marlins look like beasts. A total of 11 wins in the first 12 games does that. No longer can they sneak up on the Phillies or the Mets or the Braves. Teams already have adjusted to leadoff catalyst Emilio Bonifacio, and they'll learn Johnson's tendencies, and perhaps one of these days they'll figure out that throwing a fastball to outfielder Cody Ross, the 5-foot-8, eye-black-wearing, shaved-head sparkplug, is probably a bad idea.
The scary part, as Volstad points out, is that "Hanley hasn't even gotten hot yet." That would be Hanley Ramirez, the Marlins' 25-year-old shortstop and perhaps the best all-around offensive player in baseball. Though he can hit for average and power and steal 50 bases, Ramirez's move from leadoff to third in the order hasn't gone well. Since opening day, he has one home run and six RBIs in 12 games, and one scout posited that Ramirez has played like he's hurt.
Still, there's a feeling around the Marlins' clubhouse similar to that of their cross-state brethren last season. When Tampa Bay sneaked into first place in mid-May last season, they felt like they belonged instead of intruding on territory bequeathed to the Yankees or Red Sox. That feeling grew into a belief, and the strength of that belief solidified into a World Series berth.
"We're like Tampa last year," Helms said. "If you roll with it, and you feel that vibe, it gets you in a position to win a division."
He's seen success before, with two division championships in Atlanta and another with Philadelphia on his résumé. And Helms is no Pollyanna. He's just smitten with this team, beyond the winning and more for what could be.
The Marlins followed Gonzalez's first order to set the tone. Now they've got to figure out the harder part.
Keep playing it like they know how.
- Fredi Gonzalez